Elizabeth Jennings has produced this poem with an extraordinarily deep meaning that has seldom been seen in other poems of this genre. The poem in itself is pessimistic while the message is the exact opposite. The first thing that I wish to discuss is the sole title of this poem. It is of great significance because it can be related to several times within the poem. One Flesh is biblical and it is meant to say that when a man (or woman) marries, he or she becomes one with the other.
In actual fact this poem can be compared to William Shakespeare’s 116th sonnet. Before we actually commence with the poem there are a few facts about Elizabeth that we should include as they may be useful later on when interpreting this poem. Elizabeth was a well-educated woman who was born in 1926 and died just three years ago. She worked in publishing and as a librarian. Most of her poems were based on spiritual and emotional topics and they were often quite person as is “One Flesh”.
Her poems included suffering, relationships, loneliness and religious faith. This is highly peculiar because “One Flesh” has every single one of those characteristics.
Our first concern before explaining the actual meaning of the poem is the diction used. We can clearly observe that it is simple. This could be linked to the way in which Elizabeth has decided to demonstrate a very boring lifestyle. This will help her bring her point across to the reader as she shares this universal feeling.
She has also used a special tone that has been used to fortify her point of view. The tone she uses changes during the stanzas. Most of the time she uses a sad and pessimistic tone but at times she has changed it to a slightly more optimistic and joyful one. Jennings has also used several metaphors and similes. Some phrases in this poem are a little complicated to figure out as they may have more than one explanation. This could be compared to Elizabeth’s parents, who are also complicated for she does not realize why the passion and craze has vanished during all these years. She doesn’t know exactly why this has happened. She is trying to explain it to herself but of course she does not dismiss the fact that she could be wrong. Her parents could be interpreted differently by different people. Same with her phrases; everyone can have a different interpretation.
As we have mentioned, several phrases in this poem may have numerous explanations. Taking the first line as an example: “Lying apart now, each in a separate bed,” The word ‘now’ brings us to the present straight away. Since they are ‘lying apart’ it means that they used to have a relationship and ‘now’ this relationship has deteriorated. “…each in a separate bed,” this can give an image of two coffins in which their passion and relationship has been buried and forgotten. It gives an image of death which is extremely negative and pessimistic. “He with a book, keeping the light on late,” This singles out the man, who, as it appears, is extremely bored and not interested in anything new or very exciting. He is also ‘keeping the light on late’ which creates the image of him doing something against the wishes of his wife. Since the word ‘late’ has been used it must refer to the wife because nobody really can say an exact time definition for ‘late’. It shows that he no longer cares about her as he used to in the past and that he is more concerned about himself than he is for her. When one is reading a book, one tends to be cut off from a conversation as they are trying to concentrate on reading and understanding. So therefore this book that he is holding is actually acting as a barrier for any conversation with his wife. It is preventing them from speaking. It is like a “Do not disturb” sign which he has hung up cutting himself from any uncomfortable conversations. This is extremely selfish because it proves that he wants to annoy his wife by keeping the light on late and at the same time he is not open to any complaints or conversations that may reveal that there is something wrong. This has actually successfully managed to deceive as since further on in the poem we discover that this is not so. We can already see that not every interpretation is correct and that we can completely grab the wrong end of the stick which will lead us to false conclusions.
“She like a girl dreaming of childhood” Now our attention has been transferred to the woman and we are expecting to see her point of view. The simile ‘She like a girl’ makes her sound totally opposite to her husband. It also gives us the image that her body has aged while her mind has stayed at the tender age of sixteen. The word ‘girl’ is used to describe her mother as weak, vulnerable, fresh, innocent and energetic. These two lines balance two opposite ideas. This happens often within this poem. It can also be referred to as sexist but in a very peculiar way because Elizabeth does not blame a certain person but both of them and explains how their sexes separate their ways of thinking and therefore separate them spiritually. And yet further on in the poem we find out, once again that this is also incorrect and that they have both been thinking of very similar things. This contradicts the statement that this poem was made sexist. This is one of many deceiving characteristics of this poem. On face value, it is sexist and yet when we dig in deeper we actually witness that it is the exact opposite. She is also ‘dreaming’. This word can be defined as something more powerful than wanting, wishing or desiring. She dreams of herself being a child again so that she can live through that passion and love that she once felt one more time. She wishes that this had never died out between her and her husband and that it still lived on just as strongly as when they were in their twenties perhaps.
“All men elsewhere – it is as if they wait Some new event:” She is thinking about the other men she could have had. This is one of the interpretations for this statement which contains a lot of significance for it also contributes to the character of the mother. It is ironic because she does not realize that if she had chosen another man, she would be in the same situation. The problem is not the partner you have chosen but how you feel about passion and romance thirty-forty years down the line. She is blaming her husband for not being what he was so many years back which is very wrong since she holds just as much of the blame as he does. There is a dash in the middle of the line allowing the reader to pause and think about these words. Jennings is therefore placing a lot of emphasis on this because it describes her mother just as she described her father in the second line. “it is as if they wait some new event” Jennings is strongly criticizing her parents for not doing anything about this. They both know what is happening and neither of them has the courage to speak up and fix their problems. There is not physical barrier which is preventing them from feeling this passion once again. If both of them feel sixteen, then they are sixteen. No matter how old they look, as long as it is in their minds any physical barrier can be conquered. This is why she is criticizing them. It is as if they are waiting for something to happen for them to go back to that stage again. They are too lazy to try and do it themselves. It is as if they are waiting for God to make them happy again. But God will not do this. He does not interfere with people’s lives in this way. He knows very well that they can do this themselves. It is as if they are waiting at the station for a train that never comes in. They are simply existing instead of living their lives. That is one of the biggest crimes you can do to yourself. This is an enjambment which gives the reader an air of importance to these few words because they are what Jennings uses as criticism against her parents. The colon in the middle of the line means that an explanation will follow.
“…the book he holds unread”. This proves to us that the man has not given up hope just yet. His mind is still fighting it even if he is concealing it. The reason why he is hiding it is perhaps because he feels men should not be having these thoughts. He is also dreaming of passion, romance and excitement. He is not happy with the boring life they now lead. He is also remembering the good old times. But like a true man, he will not reveal his feelings. From the tone we can establish that Jennings is blaming him greatly for being so closed up. This is the irony. They are both thinking of the same thing and yet they lack the communication which could save their lives from freezing up completely. “Her eyes fixed on the shadows overhead.” Here we must look at the diction which is used. The word shadows refers to darkness and hopelessness. “Her eyes fixed” this gives us the image of death. When people die, one of the very first signs of death is the fact that their eyes do not move. This creates an image of death and despair. Elizabeth is saying as if maybe it is too late. They have already accepted it and are ready to die. Jennings is extremely sad. She does not wish to lose her parents.
As I have mentioned above, this poem can be compared to Shakespeare’s 116th sonnet in which love and time are included. “Love’s not Time’s fool…love alters not with the brief hours and weeks, But bears it out even to the edge of doom:” This is exactly what Elizabeth Jennings is trying to say. Love stays there forever until the ‘edge of doom’. It is only the passion that ha escaped the souls of these two lovers. In the second stanza Elizabeth explains why she is criticizing them so. “Tossed up like flotsam from a former passion,” She mocks her parents by comparing them to ‘wreckage’ as if passion was a giant wave which has crashed upon their souls and left this: two old lovers who lie in separate beds and can only imagine and remember. It is said that memory can hurt people, especially when memories come haunt us years later. I believe Jennings is trying to tell us just how much these two are suffering. Elizabeth has also used an image of death in this stanza, as in the previous one. “How cool they lie.” This is to signify the death of their passion and relationship. “They hardly ever touch,” One interpretation of this could be the lack of attention and tenderness that they share. However, this does not include the fact that they never touch which gives us some hope and also leaves us wondering what happens when they do touch. This of course is explained in the following enjambment. The simile “Or if they do it is like a confession” has several interpretations. I believe that Elizabeth is telling us that whenever they touch, they feel something which allows them to read each other’s thoughts. They know what the other is thinking and yet they leave it at that. They take no action. They both realize that they still love each other and this is all they need to live on. However, this line runs on to say “Of having little feeling” this is a negative image showing us that maybe everything is hopeless and there is really no passion left within them. Nothing could be done and this is what they are confessing to each other. There is a dramatic pause because of a dash in the middle of the line. This separates the two different opinions that Elizabeth has about what happens when they touch. This is another example of balancing opposite ideas. “or too much.” This is an antithesis proving to us that they do have all this passion still stored up there in their sixteen year-old minds. This passion is so great that they themselves are far too afraid to release it. This is the reason why Elizabeth Jennings is criticizing her parents. She knows they still have it but they do not use it.
“Chastity faces them, a destination For which their whole lives were a preparation.” The word chastity defines innocence, ignorance, loyalty, purity and is also linked to the bible just like the title. This is what they are living for and this is where their lives are going to end up. Since there is no passion in their lives anymore, they are simply living in order to get ready to die without having done anything worthwhile. This is the third enjambment in this poem and it is used yet again as a criticism of her parents because they are simply just standing there and doing nothing.
The beginning of the third stanza connects with the title “One flesh”. It is yet another antithesis “Strangely apart, yet strangely close together,” there is a caesura in the middle of the line separating the two opposite ideas. Jennings has also used a sibilance, repetition of the’s’ sound, with the words strangely, strangely and silence. This adds to the gentle tone of the poet. Another peculiar point is that the poet uses the word ‘strange’ as if it is unusual for them to be apart or close together. It connects to the title because they are not meant to be apart since when they were married according to the bible they joined bodies and became one. Therefore they cannot be apart. But we know very well that they are distant within their minds. “Silence between them like a thread to hold And not wind in” This simile conveys perhaps the most meaning from any other quotes in this poem. It gives us the image of two old people, like her mother and father, holding on to a fragile piece of thread which can break off at any instant. These two people know that if they wind the thread up it will eventually break. This will end any connection that these two share and still keeps them together. They are afraid that if they speak this thread will snap because they will have wound it up too much. This is considered as a pessimistic metaphor.
The next few words are actually optimistic for a change if interpreted in this way. It is yet another metaphor “And time itself’s a feather touching them gently.” This is putting forward a message of gentle and slow passing of time as one can imagine a feather falling down very gradually. It is as if time is not that great an obstacle for them as they make it seem. The feather is personified and it touches them like time with little or no effect whatsoever. Another interpretation to this is that time passes by so slowly for them because life is really boring and there is nothing exciting taking place. If their lives were full of passion once again time would pass by not just fast but too fast even. “Do they know they are old,” A rhetorical question stating that perhaps because they are still sixteen in their minds they have not realized the fact that age has caught up to them. Yet again we have the image of their bodies getting old while their minds remain younger than always. “These two” is a controversy to the title because they have now become two instead of one. It is the opposite of the bible’s teachings. “who are my father and mother” Elizabeth Jennings tells us this for the first time in this poem that they are related and this explains why she has been so concerned about these two people.
“Whose fire from which I came, has now grown cold?” This is a very significant ending. The message here closes the curtains on the entire poem. Elizabeth uses a caesura to balance opposite ideas and create drama, she uses powerful diction, and she uses images of passion and death and ends with a rhetorical question. All in all: a very powerful ending. The fire, of course, refers to the passion they once had and which created the poet. “now grown cold” is the image of death linked to the present tense. It is more of a statement than a question and yet she made it into a question so that we, the readers, can meditate on why we think this fire has grown cold. Jennings forces us to agree with her and think that this is a very strange occurrence that one would not have expected.
This poem is full of messages about passion and age, how they are only connected physically and not mentally, how two people who were once ‘one’ have been separated because their minds have began to accept that their bodies are growing too old for further passion. Elizabeth Jennings described her parents with a vast amount of feeling of sympathy and criticism.